While little known to the general public, Michigan roads are owned, managed and maintained by one of three levels of state government, and are classified into various systems based on their travel characteristics. See Table 1 for a summary of road ownership by type of road, and annual vehicle miles of travel (AVMT) by road type. These ownership designations and functional classifications are very important to understand in that past, current and potential future road funding decisions are likely to be impacted by issues related to road ownership.

Table 1

Table 1 - click to enlarge


Source: MDOT, State Long Range Transportation Plan 2005-2030 - Highway/Bridge Technical Report, October 31, 2006.

Michigan’s road system covers 119,569 route miles, and is owned by the state, counties and cities. In 2005, the Michigan Department of Transportation owned and was responsible for all the “I,” “US,” and “M,” roads in the state, plus some 4,413 key bridges, or 8 percent of the route miles. Eighty-three (83) county road organizations were responsible for 74 percent of the miles, and 533 cities/villages were responsible for another 18 percent of the system.[1] The county road organizations consist of 82 county “road commissions” and one county, Wayne, where the road organization is consolidated into the operations of the overall county government.

The county road commissions are somewhat unique to Michigan. They are legally distinct from the rest of the county government with elected or county-board appointed commissioners who are in most respects independent of the county board. While county boards must approve annual budgets for road commissions, that is the only real level of control by the county board. The commissions were created in 1893 to provide roads between population centers when townships had been unwilling.[2] Beginning in 1905, state government began providing funding for the road commissions. In 1931, township roads that had been controlled by townships were consolidated into the road commissions in order to avoid defaults during the Depression. At that time, a portion of state gasoline taxes and weight taxes were dedicated to the road commissions. Following the 1931 act, property taxes ceased being the primary means of funding local roads. The new, wholly independent county “road commissions” were necessary to get townships to go along with the plan, to make the sale of road bonds more feasible, and to separate road decisions from the politics of the regular county boards.

Given the above system of county and municipal roads, the Michigan DOT controls a relatively small percent of total route miles as compared to the national average and neighboring states. For instance, nationally the average percent of roads controlled by the state is 19.5 percent, while in neighboring states the average is 12.4 percent.[3] In Ohio, 15.5 percent of the roads are controlled by the state. This is an important piece of information because as compared to neighboring states Michigan state officials are somewhat limited in their ability to directly control many key roads. While the difference between controlling 8 percent and 12.4 percent of route miles may seem fairly small, it is important to note that a disproportionate share of total vehicle miles traveled moves on that incremental percent of road route miles.

The number of miles of roads assigned as state versus county versus city, and the Michigan formula for distributing state transportation revenues to specific local governments (the geographic formula) has been relatively static for many decades. However, in 1997, as part of the proposed Build Michigan II proposal that raised the gasoline tax 4 cents per gallon, Gov. John Engler’s administration proposed a major reclassification of the roads that would have increased the percentage of state roads.[4]

At the time the administration argued that, given population changes and economic development over many years, it was necessary to put more roads under state control so that the governor could ensure that the most important roads were expanded and maintained. The proposal also called for changing the distribution formulas so as to reduce the impact of simple route miles and population in determining allocations to specific counties and cities. New factors such as road usage and condition would have been introduced in an attempt to distribute money to areas with the most growth and traffic volume. However, these elements of the Engler proposal for road funding were not adopted by the Legislature and road jurisdiction and geographic formulas have not been changed significantly in a half century.

Roads are also classified under the National Functional Classification (NFC) system in terms of character of service the roads are intended to provide.[5] This classification system also determines which roads are eligible for federal aid. Roads are classified in a hierarchical system in which “principal arterials” are at the top, followed by minor arterials, collectors and local roads. Roads classified at “collector” or higher levels are eligible for federal road money. In Michigan 40,613 route miles are eligible for federal aid, with 23.8 percent of those roads on the state system.

Another classification system is the National Highway System (NHS), consisting of those roads that have the greatest state, regional and national significance to the country. The NHS routes were selected almost exclusively from roads classified as principal arterial or higher, with all interstate (I) miles included automatically. Some additional roads that serve major intermodal terminals and military installations are also included. In Michigan, some 4,761 miles are in the NHS, with 93 percent of the system consisting of state owned roads.

Michigan AVMT has increased 20 percent since 1995 to a total of 103.2 billion miles in 2005. State owned roads, while just 8 percent of total route miles, carried 51 percent of the total traffic in the state and therefore are critical to state commerce and personal mobility. However, if Michigan were to control about 12 percent of roads, as is the case in neighboring states, MDOT would likely be responsible for some 65 to 70 percent of the traffic. County roads representing 74 percent of total route miles carry just 31 percent of the total AVMT, and city roads carry 18 percent of the traffic. It will be important to consider these route miles and AVMT numbers by jurisdiction in comparison to current and proposed funding by jurisdiction.